Think you’re a Geek? Let’s talk about the ‘other’ 1350 grape varietals and see what you’ve got…
Jancis Robinson, OBE/MW is irrefutably one of the greatest wine writers living (or dead for that matter). Her mastery of the subject matter is legendary plus she has a compelling writing style that is mid-way between pedantic and simplistic—she engages geeks and neophytes alike. Her thinly veiled irreverence towards some of our industry’s sacred cows is particularly appealing to this geek. Many of her books grace our wine library, and a couple of them are among the greatest contributions to the genre ever: 1989’s Vintage Timecharts is a personal fave and The Oxford Companion to Wine is the wine lover’s version of The Joy of Cooking—an absolute staple in any ‘wine household’.
Ms. Robinson’s newest book, Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavours is a ‘Tour de Force’. Totaling 1280 pages and weighing in at just under 7 pounds (co-authored by Dr. Jose Vouillamoz and Julia Harding), the book attempts to catalogue all grapes being used to make wines commercially on Planet Earth… 1,368 of them by their estimation, though they freely admit they know they’ve missed some. 1,368. That’s a big number! So for those of you that pride yourself on the breadth and depth of your wine list… how do you feel now? You may have 250 wines on your list, but we bet you a bottle of Hearty Burgundy your plump list features wines from no more than 25 varietals. Order some extra paper stock… you have 1,343 to go.
Of course, that might be a bit daunting to achieve. Likewise, it might be a little overwhelming for your guests as well. Even at the swankiest restaurants, with wine lists that go deep into geekdom and perhaps offer wines from say, fifty varietals, overwhelmingly their sales will still be mostly Chardonnay, Cabernet, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Noir. These are wide-appeal grapes that produce consistently good, dependable wines from a wide range of growing regions. Virtually all the major wine-producing countries make—at the very least—serviceable wines from these varietals, hence a strong familiarity with such wines, whether they are labeled varietally or otherwise. However, going beyond the ‘classic varietals’ is very much in order today. Over the past decade, the principles of authenticity and uniqueness have taken hold: from craft beers where the more local the better, to ‘farm to table’ restaurants that focus on produce from farms within driving distance of their restaurants, to customizable I-Phone covers… people do not want to be lemmings; they want to be unique and have unique thoughts and use unique products. Perfect timing for the rebirth of what some call ‘heirloom varietals’; obscure grapes from pockets around the globe that have never seen the world beyond their original locales, and over the past several decades have been swimming against the recent tide of the ‘globalization’ of wine production—Chardonnay, Cabernet & Merlot for everyone!
We can thank the sommelier crowd to a large degree for the recent change. With the growth of their ranks in the late-nineties, and with the mantra of ‘ABC’ (anything but Chardonnay—or Cabernet), these ladies and gentlemen were not happy to offer their guests the same things they’d find in other restaurants, the same things they’d drink at home (and gee, if everyone drank just Chardonnay and Cabernet, who would need somms?). So, on a mission they went, to find unique, ‘singular’ wines that speak their origins and were revelations to the most inquisitive and adventurous wine drinkers. They have indeed been successful at exposing these wines to the wine world at large, and in some cases can take credit for saving varietals from extinction (really). Falanghina, Favorita, Txakoli, Jacquère, Gringet, Trousseau, Poulsard, Dindarella, Frappato, Kadarka, are a few of the new (old) varietals the Wine Geek has seen on lists in the past year. In some cases their main appeal is that they are ‘discovery’ wines, as opposed to great wines (‘I’ve never had a Jacquère, let’s try it’); in some cases, there is immense attractiveness and personality that would appeal to a wider audience if they can indeed get some play (Greece’s Assyrtiko comes to mind).
Also notable in this book is the incredible genealogy provided for many of the grapes (there are even ‘family trees’ of the most popular varietals. Dr. Vouillamoz is an ampelographer –a grape scientist. The origin and parentage of these genetically unstable wine grapes used to rely more on studying leaf shape and size, color, shoots, shapes of bunches et cetera. But since the mid-nineties, DNA testing has taken the lead and confirmed—or dismissed—previously held notions: did you know that Pinot Noir is the great-grandfather of Syrah? Or that Chenin Blanc is the ‘sister’ of Sauvignon Blanc, hence the ‘aunt’ to Cabernet Sauvignon? The Pinot Noir family tree might be worth the price of the book alone (then again maybe not–at $120, it comes in at $18 a pound!).
So, the gauntlet has been dropped: feel free to let us know if we are right—how deep into the varietal abyss does your wine list dip? If not that far, have fun and explore and turn your most adventurous customers on to new things—just don’t forget to give the balance of your customers what they want too: Chardonnay, Cabernet, Pinot Gris, Merlot…